The Gray Man is such a massive, go-for-broke production, it’s a shame we can’t give it a good review. Though the film is based on a best-selling novel and adapted by the same duo who gave us Avengers and Avengers: Endgame, the latest Netflix action flick has more cliches and subplots than anyone can keep up with, so much so that it could have been titled Mission Impossible: Rote Nation.
The script is bursting with everything you’d expect from a mainstream spy thriller. Shot across the globe with a cast of big names and taking advantage of a $200 million budget, the movie crams an entire season’s worth of characters and locations into a two-hour runtime. So much happens here and so much is familiar– a hero goes rogue, a villain goes berserk, a mission goes awry– there are times you cease caring about how cluttered the storytelling is and give yourself over to this insane, “Greatest Hits” collection of genre tropes.
Ryan Gosling stars as Court Gentry aka “Six,” aka another version of Ethan Hunt. He’s a secret agent who is the last remaining member of a black-ops unit that tracks down criminals across the globe. When we meet him, he’s at a party in Bangkok, dressed in a red suit, and ready to kill some bad guy who turns out to be one of his own. From there, he leaves the agency and runs off with a device his boss (Rege-Jean Page) told him to destroy, with a number of assassins on his trail.
Enter Lloyd (Chris Evans), a vicious CIA operative with a porn ‘stache and an endless supply of Italian knits. Lloyd is tasked with tracking down Six and retrieving the device. The protagonist gets some help from Deni (Ana de Armas), a police officer who likes him, and Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), a recruitment agent who is the closest thing he has to a friend. But this being a One Man Show, Six spends most of the movie hopping between locales like Prague, Vienna, Tokyo and Hong Kong, none of which are given any sort of texture.
Cinematographer Stephen Windon, who has made a career out of franchises like Sonic, Star Trek and Fast and Furious, shoots The Gray Man rather anonymously, with the look and framing of television. Every character is shot in basic close-ups during exposition dumps. During action scenes, speed drones cut to hand-held cameras without any sense of geography, stakes or compositional dynamism. The lack of coherence makes you long for the days of Mission Impossible, shot by Stephen Burum.
There are other ways in which The Gray Man makes you miss the light and complex action of Mission, a series that feels artful, emotional and surprising– everything the Russo Brothers’ movie is not. By the end of their sad, convoluted and overstuffed adventure, many will be left disappointed, while some may find themselves swept away by a film that packs more punches into its runtime than every M.I. movie combined. Either way, it’s hard not to view this as a wasted opportunity. The Gray Man could have been so much more, and that would have required so much less.
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